Saturday, February 25, 2006
If you are looking for a great conference that will provide insightful and practical advice for helping law students learn, check out the upcoming Twelfth Annual Gonzaga University Institute for Law School Teaching Conference. Hosted by Chicago-Kent College of Law on June 2-3, this year's conference will focus on "Inspiring Students and Facilitating Learning." The conference lineup boasts an impressive array of presenters and will feature seminars that focus on student learning outside the classroom. Take a look; you might find a sudden desire to spend a weekend in the Windy City. (dbw)
Friday, February 24, 2006
I was chatting with my dean, Ellen Suni, last night; and she made an important observation we should all take to heart. She pointed out a tendency among struggling law students to abandon the "artificial world" of law school in favor of the "real world" of law firms. Given that tendency, it is paramount that ASP programs make clear at every opportunity how the strategies we are providing to students correspond to the skills real lawyers must employ in that "real world" beyond the law school walls.
Ellen has observed over the years that students whose grades are not particularly stellar make an understandable adjustment in the focus of their energies. Because their grades may not impress future employers, they must make their impression by working as clerks in whatever firms will give them summer and part-time employment. They give up on improving their grades in favor of creating a track record in “real-world” legal work in the hope of impressing a part-time employer enough to be kept on after law school. As a result, they walk away from ASP help because it seems irrelevant to what they consider more realistic, attainable goals.
The effect of that choice is, ironically, that the students miss the best opportunities to learn the skills essential to effective practice because they see no correlation between law school study skills and professional practice skills. The problem is exacerbated for some because they find themselves working on projects that do not require the higher-level skills they will need when clients and cases are their own and there is no one else around to do the more sophisticated work.
Therefore, ASP professionals need to make the case explicitly and repeatedly that we are actually teaching them practice skills disguised as academic skills. We need to draw directly the correlations between specific academic skills and specific practice versions of those skills.
For example, the ability to recognize during an exam alternative interpretations of facts or unstated but reasonable possibilities springing from the stated facts is a skill they will use daily in the world of law practice. An ASP professional might present a hypothetical concerning a college student who is party to a contract and coax students to see the possibility that the college student was too young at the time of the contract formation to have had capacity to be bound. A law school exam might contain such facts, and the professor might expect her students to pick up on that very real possibility and address it.
Practice presents those situations every day. No one in practice assumes that what the client says is all that is relevant to the analysis of the client's situation. Every good lawyer thinks beyond what the client sees, the opponent sees, the witnesses see, even in terms of facts, before settling into an analysis of the issues facing that client.
But students often miss that connection. We have to provide it for them if we expect them to redouble their efforts in law school when their efforts thus far have produced problematic grades.
For each skill we present to students, we should think carefully about its relevance to the practice of law. We should brainstorm all the ways each skill is used in law practice and draw those parallels explicitly from day one of our programs so that students see our programs as relevant beyond the academic confines of law school. (Perhaps we should drop the term “academic” from our programs and call them something that suggests more accurately and fully what we – and our colleagues on the faculty – are really doing.)
Do you draw those parallels for your students on a regular basis? If not, you might consider the power those connections hold not only for motivating students but for making their efforts pay off long term in ways critical to the competent practice of law. (dbw)
 During our chat, Ellen suggested this hypothetical as an example, so I freely steal it here for my own purposes.
My co-editor, Dennis Tonsing, is a master at making those connections. His text, 1000 Days to the Bar: But the Practice of Law Begins Now, is an excellent resource for anyone looking for the parallels between the study and practice of law.
Tuesday, February 21, 2006
Here in our neck of the woods (that is the cold and wintry northeast), we are all abuzz in the legal community about an e-mail scandal. Basically, a young, new attorney decided to decline a job offer (after possibly accepting it) at the very last minute and did so in a fairly bratty e-mail to her future (and more experienced) employer. She told him that she was opening her own practice so that she could essentially "reap what I sew." (She was not, by the way, opening a tailor shop). He responded that although he did not take issue with her decision, he did have a problem with her delivery method. She told him that real lawyers put contracts in writing-and he told her (in a fairly restrained way) that this was not a "bar exam question" and that her behavior would certainly not bode well for her in our fairly insular bar network. She responded, "bla bla bla." Which demonstrated a complete lack of H's and an overabundance of chutzpah if you ask me.
So why do we all know about it? Well, like those old shampoo ads, the potential employer told two friends, and they told two friends and so on and so on. Within three days some forwarded version of this exchange was probably found in every attorney in Boston's in box, complete with commentary from the folks who had read it along the way. In my version, it appears that someone actually sent it back to our bratty seamstress along with a really long list of cc's. I know that I then sent it to, among others, my husband (an environmental lawyer) and a former colleague serving over in Iraq with JAG.
The next day, it was on the front page of the Boston Globe and last night I saw it on Fox news (please don't form any political judgments based on the fact we were watching Fox news; we don't have cable, CSI: Miami was a repeat and I find the Olympics kind of nerve-wracking). Another faculty member here saw it on a national news broadcast also.
So, (and here is where I finally link this to ASP), what is the role of an academic support program in fostering professionalism among students? Last week, before the whole "bla bla bla" thing, coincidentally, I had to deal with a student who sent me an e-mail with the subject line, "MY SWEET-ASS MEMO." Yes, it was all in caps. This was quite shocking as I sat at home checking my e-mail on the laptop with my nine-year-old looking over my shoulder. I knew I could not let this slip past without pointing out that this lacked appropriate professionalism on the part of the student.
But then I wondered. Isn't ASP, by far, one of the least formal places in the law school? Shouldn't we try to create the kind of rapport that makes students feel comfortable coming to us for help? How can I point out this student's error without sounding prudish? I ended up scolding the student in a return e-mail (I deleted the offending language from the subject line). I told him that while we are essentially a safe haven and more relaxed part of the law school, that his correspondence with our office still had to be professional. I asked him to refrain from using such language in the future.
I felt like I had put on my traditional lawyer garb, put my hair in a tight bun and perched my glasses on the tip of my nose for a moment, but I know I did the right thing because his response was, "I'm sorry" and not "bla bla bla." Maybe I have prevented the big e-mail scandal of 2008, and maybe not. It remains to be seen.
In a note of disclaimer, or perhaps even just an ethical honesty issue, I should point out that our seamstress is a graduate of the school I teach at-and no, I have never seen her before. (ezs)
Sunday, February 19, 2006
Perhaps the most neglected yet critical activity in the typical law student's life is reviewing material throughout the semester. The pressure to complete daily class readings, case briefs, outlines, legal writing assignments, competition write-ons, and other ongoing activities each week can relegate reviewing earlier material to the "left over" time at the end of the week, which is an imaginary time in a fairy tale land of eight-day weeks. As a result, students often find themselves reviewing the semester's early material for the first time during their exam weeks.
Students who wait until the days before an exam to review the semester's material deprive themselves of important benefits. Regularly reviewing the semester's critical ideas allows students to begin building conceptual frameworks for each course early on, and such frameworks are ultimately essential for making sense of each course's subject matter.
In addition, as each framework develops, new ideas more readily find their places in the logic of the subject matter, and connections between new concepts and earlier material become easier to see. In fact, because new material in a course often puts new glosses on earlier material, the student who has remained familiar with the earlier material is always in the best position to refine his understanding of the earlier concepts.
Ongoing review is also a time saver in the short run. Because in most courses concepts build upon one another, extending earlier ideas and fleshing out ongoing themes, the more a student has internalized those earlier ideas, the more quickly she grasps the new. After all, new concepts are more easily understood and mastered when their connections to known concepts are apparent.
Final review for exams is, of course, radically different for those who have been regularly reviewing and reshaping their understanding of each course's critical concepts. They needn't expend the time or energy to build the semester's frameworks or internalize key concepts; they can focus instead on advanced review techniques. Like athletes who have trained throughout the off season, they can devote themselves to refining and perfecting their preparation for exams rather than straining to reach game readiness in a compressed time frame.
Now (actually, pretty much any time) is a good time to remind our students to schedule time in each week to review what has gone before. They should do so with one eye on internalizing the material (something most students understand must eventually take place) and with the other on piecing together the large and small conceptual frameworks that characterize mastery of complex subjects.
Students will nod in agreement, of course, flooded with guilt and anxiety about their unfulfilled good intentions; so we should probably not stop with mere reminders. We should offer some practical suggestions on how to work ongoing review into overloaded schedules and make clear its immediate benefits in making current class preparation more efficient and effective.
Most students understand the value of ongoing review, but they too often let the tyranny of urgent demands defeat their best intentions. We should do what we can to help them keep short-term demands from crowding out long-term strategies that will benefit them not only later but in the here and now of mid-semester. (dbw)